Boundary disputes that end up in court can be a nightmare for all involved. Although a boundary dispute can mean any dispute between adjoining landowners, more often than not they apply to small strips of land measuring up to just a few feet wide, with litigation costs far outweighing the value of the disputed land. Judge Simon Barker QC referred to such disputes as ‘economic madness’ at the end of a four-day trial in 2011 to determine a disputed boundary.
Boundary disputes are not always clear-cut. Boundaries are rarely precisely defined and adverse possession can affect who owns the disputed land. The principal of adverse possession or ‘squatters’ rights’ occurs when someone occupies land belonging to someone else without permission and if this continues for a number of years (normally 10 or 12 years) then, in certain circumstances, the land may become theirs.
One such case involved a dispute over a strip of land which resulted in the parties with legal title to it being ordered to pay court costs of £100,000.
The strip of land in question measured 890 square feet and was between Ernest and Elizabeth Zarb’s home near Malvern and their neighbours, James and Theresa Parry. Theoretically it belonged to the Zarbs as the previous owner of their house had sold some land to the previous owners of the Parrys and erected a fence to keep his cows in but left some of his land on the other side of the fence. The Zarbs tried to take this land back by knocking down their neighbours’ fence and erecting a new one.
When the Parrys objected, the matter went to court. The judge agreed that the Zarbs owned the land on paper but that the Parrys had obtained squatters’ rights over it as they had been in possession of it for over 10 years without being challenged.
Determining the exact boundary
So how can you determine the exact boundary?
A good starting point is the original title deeds. The language used in the original conveyance may clarify where the boundary is. You can also find information about neighbouring land from the Land Registry.
If the land is registered, there will be a title plan filed at the Land Registry. However, this usually only shows general boundaries, unless the previous owner supplied exact information about the boundary position. Ordnance Survey plans also usually only show general boundaries.
If the boundary is unclear, the first step should be to try to talk to the other party. You may be able to come to an agreement with your neighbour which will save significant time and money. Boundary agreements do not have to be in writing but it is advisable to get a surveyor to draw up a detailed plan and to send this to Land Registry.
What if the parties can’t agree?
If the parties can’t agree on the boundary then alternative forms of dispute resolution such as mediation or expert determination should be considered. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors offers a Neighbour Disputes Service which is a significantly cheaper and quicker alternative to the courts. Each party presents their case to an independent surveyor who then considers both parties’ submissions and gives an indication of where the boundary lies. The surveyor’s decision is not binding but gives an indication of what the courts might decide and results in an early settlement. An amicable resolution to disputes is always the best route.
Whether its commercial letting, leasing agricultural land or a residential letting you are getting into, ensure you are aware of your boundaries and all your paper work is in order. Further information on property and commercial letting agreements can be found at clickdocs.